Chase Elliott was one round away from a spot in NASCAR’s title race in 2019. He kicked off the playoffs with a win at Charlotte in the first round and two top 10s in the Round of 12, including a second-place finish at Kansas. But then the Round of 8 happened. Just as Elliott seemed on the verge of his first championship race, the proverbial wheels fell off. His best finish in the Round of 8 was 32nd, as issue after issue plagued the No. 9 team. And just like that, 2019 was effectively over for the second-generation driver.
Elliott’s 2019 was a little short of his 2018 run, as he had six fewer top 10s, and his average finish dropped three spots from 12.2 to 15.1. His six DNFs were the most of his four-year Cup career to date.
But it wasn’t a terrible season for Elliott, who also scored wins at Talladega and Watkins Glen. He also had four poles and tied a career high in wins (three). He proved to be one of the Cup Series’ best road course racers with two wins in three road races. He won his second Most Popular Driver award in as many years, and he’s only 24. Elliott has plenty of time to win a title, and he’s only going to improve with experience.
Elliott is one of a growing handful of drivers who represent the next generation in NASCAR, and his role is an important one for the sport as a whole. Three of the four drivers in last year’s title race were over 35. Elliott’s teammate, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, will step away from the full-time grind after this year, and the clock is ticking on several others. Elliott, Ryan Blaney and other youngsters are going to be vital — how they connect to fans and sponsors will be key in keeping fans’ interest in racing and attracting new, younger fans to the sport. Elliott fills that role well. He’s attractive, well spoken and uses social media effectively, if not as prolifically as some.
A title run this year would cement Elliott at the forefront of the next wave of stars in the Cup Series, and he has the pieces in place to make that happen. Crew chief Alan Gustafson, a 15-year veteran leader who has taken Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon to top-5 point finishes, returns to the team, as do sponsors NAPA, Mountain Dew, Kelley Blue Book and Hooters. Some of those sponsor deals expire after this year, but Elliott’s popularity should be enough to keep them on board for the future.
What the youngster needs to do as 2020 opens is to shake off 2019’s unfortunate ending. It’s taken a while for him to warm up the last couple of years (five of his six wins have come in August or later); if he can come out of the gate swinging, it will make a statement that he’s ready to make himself a contender. Elliott hasn’t been strong at Daytona despite three poles, but he’s been successful at tracks such as Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway, ISM Raceway and Atlanta, the next four tracks on the 2020 schedule.
Hendrick Motorsports has struggled the last couple of years, but the organization showed signs of improvement in 2019, putting Elliott and Alex Bowman in Victory Lane. Both of those drivers, plus William Byron, also made the playoffs. When this season is over, Elliott will be the team’s senior driver, and how he will emerge as a team leader will be another part of his evolution.
If Elliott has learned from the disappointment of 2019, he’ll be ready to prove himself as a legitimate title threat this year. Expect continued success at road courses and intermediate tracks, where he has excelled, but he’s also a threat on the short tracks — and that’s a driver who can take it all the way.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 10/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)